The famous line “It’s alive, it’s alive” comes from the familiar story of Frankenstein, a monster made of random parts and brought to life through a charge of electricity. Just as Dr. Frankenstein is horrified by the life he creates and is unable to maintain control, many times we create systems we have no control of. Though we may not be horrified of the systems we make, we may be surprised and maybe even overwhelmed by the life a complex system takes on of its own.
Unlike basic systems, complex systems are difficult to interrupt and modify because once set in motion a complex system becomes a monster with a life of its own that may not be able to be stopped without catastrophic results to an organization, community, or an individual. The nature of a complex system is that it is made of many subsystems that require attention and coordination and poses a higher potential for something to go wrong (Anderson & Johnson, 1997). Characteristics of a complex system is that they tend to be self-stabilizing, appear to be purposeful, capable of using feedback to modify their behavior, and have the ability to modify their environments (Anderson & Johnson, 1997).
This is where many people can become overwhelmed with the systems in their lives and replicate Gene Wilder’s performance by crying “it’s alive, it’s alive!” Complex systems have the ability to be purposeful through establishing goals and pursuing the fulfillment of those goals on its own (Kauffman, 1980). Complex systems also have the ability to anticipate actions and reactions based on various factors encountered previously, which allow the system to not only react to the environment but also modify it for its own purposes (Kauffman, 1980).
What examples can be given of systems taking on a life of their own?
Anderson, V., & Johnson, L. (1997). Systems thinking basics: from concepts to causal loops. Cambridge, Mass: Pegasus Communications.
Kauffman, D. L. (1980). Systems one: an introduction to systems thinking. Minneapolis, Minn: Future Systems.
Morecroft, J. D. W. (2015). Strategic modelling and business dynamics: a feedback systems approach (Second edition). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.